I'm a dental hygienist, pyrography artist, avid gardener, writer, vegetarian, world traveler, and many other things!
It's pretty easy to "grab and go" when you have a busy schedule, family responsibilities, and not much time to spend cooking in the kitchen.
However, this seemingly easy, breezy lifestyle choice comes with a long-term cost. Overeating, obesity, heart disease, multiple cancers, chronic systemic inflammation, systemic diseases, mental health disorders, and premature death are all strongly correlated with highly processed food consumption.
While it's sometimes an "act of convenience" to buy these highly processed foods, letting them form the basis of your diet can really only end in eventual disease. Many of these ingredients are known to cause cancer, mess with brain chemistry and hormones, kill nerve cells, and initiate brain cell death.
It's shocking to see just how much of the American and Western diets rely on these types of processed foods as the bulk of their dietary intake.
Shocking Facts About Processed Foods
- The global food additives industry is anticipated to exceed $115 billion by 2024.
- On average, 80% of the calories consumed by Americans come from ultra-processed foods.
- Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of sugar intake in Americans.
- 70% of dietary sodium intake in the US comes from ultra-processed foods.
- Preventable, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality in the US and most Western countries. These diseases typically afflict 50-65% of the adult population and are strongly correlated with an ultra-processed diet.
Processed food just means that the food has been altered in some way. A bag of spinach is processed, for example.
Ultra-processed food, on the other hand, contains additives, preservatives, sweeteners, sensory enhancers, colorants, and flavors, but little or no "actual" food. To make up for this they often are "fortified" with micronutrients.
Ultra-processed foods are manufactured to addict you, keep you craving, and keep you unsatisfied and hungry for more.
What Counts as Ultra-Processed:
- Mass-produced packaged breads and buns
- Sweet or savory packaged snacks including chips
- Chocolate bars, sweets, and junk food
- Sodas and sweetened drinks
- Meatballs, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, etc.
- Instant noodles and soups
- Frozen or shelf-life ready meals
- Foods made mostly or entirely from sugar, oils, and fats
Junk Food Addiction
Highly processed foods are designed to keep you endlessly hungry for them. These manufactured foods and chemicals are made specifically to stimulate a dopamine response in the brain. Dopamine is the "feel good" neurotransmitter in the brain that is often blamed for addiction problems and drug dependence. The problem is these foods are "empty" foods, virtually devoid of anything natural or healthy, and are often actually harmful to health and longevity.
Food companies engineer their products to have a strong chemical addiction response in people. Unfortunately, this addiction is to foods that are killing them. Many who consume these processed products on a regular basis actually have withdrawal symptoms when they stop eating them for any period of time. Not only is this stuff mentally addicting, but over time it becomes a physical addiction as well.
Ultra-processed foods are notoriously difficult to quit eating due to the fact that they're engineered specifically to addict you.
Some of the largest companies are now using brain scans to study how we react neurologically to certain foods, especially to sugar. They've discovered that the brain lights up for sugar the same way it does for cocaine.
— Michael Moss, "Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us"
The Top 10 Toxic Ingredients Hiding in Processed Foods
1. Artificial Colors
Some of the artificial colors (such as Blue 1) have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier, causing cognitive issues, hyperactivity, hypotension, and acidosis. Artificial colors have been correlated with ADHD in children and many are classified as neurotoxins. Artificial colors have been linked to thyroid, adrenal, bladder, kidney, and brain cancers.
2. Artificial Flavors
These are chemicals made in a lab that are added to highly-processed foods to give them flavor. Each flavor can contain up to 100 synthetic chemicals including solvents, preservatives, MSG, parabens, and much more.
3. Artificial Sweeteners
Aspartame (AminoSweet, Equal, NutraSweet, Spoonful), saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin), and sucralose (Splenda) are harder on our systems than natural sugars. Studies indicate artificial sweeteners don't trigger a "stop" response in the brain like natural sugars do, leading to overeating and weight gain. In addition, aspartame, a known neurotoxin, has been linked to a wide range of cancers and constitutes 75% of cases of additive-related emergency room visits.
4. Enriched and Bleached Flour
May be treated with up to 60 chemicals, including bleach. At the end of processing and chemical manipulation, there is really nothing nutritive left. They add synthetic vitamins in order to call it "food." Wheat is one of the most hybridized and genetically modified foods, dosed heavily with Roundup and other toxic herbicidal chemicals.
This infamous neurotoxic poison is found in high concentrations in processed foods. Processed foods and drinks absorb fluoride from equipment and water used in the manufacturing process. Many foods are processed with water and are later dehydrated, leaving high doses of concentrated fluoride behind in the food.
6. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
According to researchers at Tufts University, Americans consume more calories from HFCS than any other source. It's in nearly all foods that are highly processed. It increases triglycerides, boosts fat-storing hormones, and drives people to overeat, leading to weight gain.
7. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
This excitotoxin is added to processed foods as a flavor enhancer. It's been correlated with neurodegenerative diseases, obesity, depression, and mental disorders.
Sodium Nitrates and Nitrites, TBHQ, BHT, BHA, Sodium and Potassium Benzoate, and many others. When benzoates combine with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) benzene can form, which is a known carcinogen. While some preservatives are known endocrine disruptors (linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues), others have been correlated with multiple types of cancers.
9. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
This has been banned in the EU and many other countries worldwide. It contains Insulin Like Growth Factor (IGF-1), which has a strong correlation to tumor and cancer development. rBGH is mainly linked to breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers.
10. Synthetic Trans Fats (hydrogenated oils)
The consumption of synthetic trans fat is strongly correlated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, decreased immune response, and systemic inflammation (the forerunner to virtually all systemic disease.) Trans fats have no known health benefit, and there is no safe level of exposure to them.
How to Manage Junk Food Addiction
- Know what your triggers are, and avoid them.
- Plan your meals. At first try to replace one current favorite with something healthier. Continue until your diet is less reliant on processed foods.
- Manage your stress levels and try to keep from stress eating. We almost always turn to comfort foods when we're stressed out, and this is an easy trap to fall into. Try to avoid it in the first place.
- Surround yourself with people who eat more healthily than you do. Those around you influence you whether you realize it or not. By surrounding yourself with aspirations, you can't help but aim for them.
- Be patient and nice to yourself. Addictions are difficult to break. Keep at it.
Sources and Further Reading
Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., et al. (2005, February 01). Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/81/2/341/4607411
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). (2015, March 29). Highly Processed Foods Dominate U. S. Grocery Purchases. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150329141017.htm
Fiolet, T., Srour, B., Sellem, L., Kesse-Guyot, E., Allès, B., Méjean, C., et al. (2018, February 14). Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods and Cancer Risk: Results from Nutrinet-Santé Prospective Cohort. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5811844/
Fox, M. (2018, February 15). Highly Processed Foods May Raise Cancer Risk, Study Finds. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/highly-processed-foods-may-raise-cancer-risk-study-finds-n848186
Gallagher, J. (2018, February 15). Ultra-Processed Foods 'Linked to Cancer'. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.bbc.com/news/health-43064290
Gunnars, K., BSc. (2017, August 01). Processed Foods: Health Risks and Dangers. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/318630.php
Hari, V. (2018). Ingredients to Avoid in Processed Food. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://foodbabe.com/ingredients-to-avoid/
Mercola, J. M. (2013, December 30). 7 Worst Ingredients in Processed Foods. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/12/30/worst-food-ingredients.aspx
Michaels, J. (2015). Top Ten Toxic Food Ingredients in Processed Food. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.thebetterhealthstore.com/043011_top-ten-toxic-ingredients-in-processed-food_01.html
Rohatgi, K. W., Tinius, R. A., Cade, W. T., & Steele, E. M., et al. (2017, December 7). Relationships Between Consumption of Ultra-Processed Foods, Gestational Weight Gain and Neonatal Outcomes in a Sample of US Pregnant Women. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://peerj.com/articles/4091/
Steele, E. M., Popkin, B. M., Swinburn, B., & Monteiro, C. A. (2017, February 14). The Share of Ultra-Processed Foods and the Overall Nutritional Quality of Diets in the US: Evidence from a Nationally Representative Cross-Sectional Study. Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://pophealthmetrics.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12963-017-0119-3
Ultra-Processed Food. (2018, October 01). Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultra-processed_food
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Kate P
Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on October 30, 2018:
@Chitrangada Sharan, In the West we're surrounded by processed food and it's very easy to get into a bad habit. I do hope this article raises some awareness. Thanks for the nice comments!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 30, 2018:
Quite an important and informative article and should be read by all, who are addicted to junk foods or processed foods.
Thanks for sharing this well written and researched article.
Kate P (author) from The North Woods, USA on October 26, 2018:
@katrinasui, You're absolutely right! It's quick, easy, and relatively inexpensive to buy. The long-term results are expensive though! Thanks for commenting.
katrinasui on October 26, 2018:
we should avoid junk food. But unfortunately young generation loves junk food.